Baylor football has one final opportunity to satisfy the home crowd this season, as it goes against the Kansas State Wildcats on Saturday at McLane Stadium.
“This game, we’ll honor our seniors. A great group of 12 seniors will be honored,” said acting head coach Jim Grobe. “We hope we have a great crowd Saturday. It’s a wonderful group of guys that has persevered through a tough season so far. I’m really proud of these guys. They’re very important to Baylor football for a long time.”
One of those seniors will be quarterback Seth Russell. However, after sustaining a dislocated ankle in Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma, he will not get to the lead the Bears’ offense one last time at McLane Stadium. Instead, Grobe and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles will now hand the keys to the offense to freshman quarterback Zach Smith.
“I feel great. I feel confident,” Smith said. “Seth [Russell] has confidence in me going out there and leading the team, and I feel great, real excited, maybe a little nervous, but I feel that’s a given. I’m just going to go out there and be a leader and try execute this offense.”
Smith, in limited action this season, has been effective when his number has been called. In his six appearances in 2016, he is 16 for 35 for 272 yards and two touchdowns. He has also contributed one rushing touchdown this season. With positive results thus far, Grobe said he is confident in Smith’s ability to lead the team going forward.
“I feel good about Zach. One thing I was impressed with Saturday was his maturity. When it was his turn to go, he didn’t panic. He seemed really calm but focused, and I was impressed with the maturity he showed taking the field in a tough situation,” Grobe said. “He’s a smart quarterback, takes his role very seriously. He tries to do what the coaches tell him to do, which is fun. He’s got a good arm. We’ll find out how well he runs with the football. He doesn’t have the foot speed that Seth has, but he’s a big guy, and he’s very athletic. It’s going to be fun for me to see.”
Smith won’t be asked to carry the burden of running the offense on his own. After missing last week’s game to sort out “attitude issues,” senior running back Shock Linwood is expected to return to the Baylor backfield this weekend. Grobe also says that, although extremely sore, freshman running back JaMychal Hasty will be ready to help with the rushing attack. The Bears are also trying to get sophomore running back Terence Williams healthy after suffering a knee injury against the Sooners. However, Grobe gave no indication on whether or not he would be available.
What lies ahead on Saturday for the Bears in Kansas State is vastly different than anything else they have seen this season in conference play. The slower paced, clock-eating style of offense that the Wildcats like to run will force the Bears to have to get stops on third down, as well as apply pressure on the offense to score when they have the opportunity.
“They have a great running game, and they know how to use the clock really well,” said senior linebacker Aiavion Edwards. “Just being able to manage that and stop those guys when we need it and allowing our offense to ball is going to be a huge deal.”
Grobe, who has only coached against Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder once, has the utmost respect for him and understands how vital he has been to resurrecting the Wildcat football program. Having coached against him before and breaking down the film, Grobe understands the challenges that come with Snyder’s schemes.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that will scheme you better than Bill Snyder will, and he’s going to make you defend the field, and he’s going to make different people have to support the run. The quarterback is their leading rusher. He’s a guy who can really hurt you, and he throws the ball well. It’s not like he’s just a runner. That’s their bread and butter. They’ve got some running backs that are really talented,” Grobe said. “They’re going to eat some clock time and not give you as many offensive possessions that you normally get, so when you’re offense, you better take advantage because you’re not going to get as many. They’re a real challenge. Different from a lot of teams we played so far where you worry about giving up big plays in the pass game, but you can give up big plays in the run game against Kansas State.”
The Wildcats rely heavily on both the arm and the legs of junior quarterback Jesse Ertz. He leads the team with 630 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. Ertz has also been quietly effective in the passing game this season. He has thrown for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns.
“They can throw some tricks at you. They’ve always had an interesting offense,” said senior cornerback Ryan Reid. “We just have to lock in and stick with the game plan.”
Ertz will be joined in the backfield by senior running back Charles Jones and sophomore running back Justin Silmon. Jones has rushed for 509 yards and two touchdowns, while Silmon has contributed 255 yards and one touchdown for the Wildcats. Sophomore wide receiver Dominique Heath is Ertz’s favorite target in the aerial attack. Dominigue leads the team with 39 receptions for 406 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s definitely a run-first offense. It’s going to more power run, a lot of pulling guards,” said junior defensive end K.J. Smith. “They run with their quarterbacks. They have three quarterbacks that they had to hand the ball to and trust with running the ball, so it’s a lot different than most teams today.”
After dropping three consecutive games and watching their dreams of a Big 12 championship and possibly a College Football Playoff berth disappear, Baylor needs a win to keep the momentum heading into its final two conference games against Texas Tech and West Virginia.
“It’s a must-win game,” Edwards said. “We’ve been in this little slump lately, and it’s something we have to get out of, and this is a game where we must get out and perform well and get a win.”
Senior Day festivities will begin with the Bear Walk at 8:30 a.m., which will be followed by a pre-game honoring ceremony for the seniors at 10:45 a.m. Kickoff between the Bears and Wildcats is set for 11 a.m. The game will be aired on ESPN2.